City angry about aid pullback“What would happen if the city didn’t clear the roads after it snowed? Would that wake people up?” Alexandria City Council member Cindy Bigger posed that question to show how upset the city is with a sudden and unexpected loss of $226,358 in local government aid (LGA).
By: Al Edenloff, Alexandria Echo Press
“What would happen if the city didn’t clear the roads after it snowed? Would that wake people up?”
Alexandria City Council member Cindy Bigger posed that question to show how upset the city is with a sudden and unexpected loss of $226,358 in local government aid (LGA).
Governor Tim Pawlenty decided to make deep cuts in LGA to deal with a $426 million year-end deficit.
City council members vented their frustrations to local representatives Torrey Westrom, R-Elbow Lake, and Mary Ellen Otremba, DFL-Long Prairie at Monday night’s meeting that had been set long before news of the deficit and cuts hit.
The original intention of the meeting was to go over legislative priorities for the upcoming session. But the 2008 cut dominated the discussion.
Westrom, while sympathizing with Alexandria’s situation, didn’t pull punches about what is likely to happen next session: more cuts in LGA for 2009.
“It may get a lot uglier,” he told the council.
While it won’t provide much comfort to Alexandria, Westrom said the LGA decision could have cut a wider swathe – cities with less than 1,000 populations were spared because they would have even a tougher time making up the loss.
Mayor Dan Ness said that the property-rich suburbs in the Twin Cities, which receive transit dollars from the state, haven’t been shouldering their fair share of the budget deficit.
“It’s the first ring suburbs that are eating our lunch,” he said. “They skated through in 2003 [another budget deficit year] and they’re doing it again.”
Ness urged Westrom and Otremba to stand against the metro interests and fight for the smaller, outstate cities. “We’re getting knocks over the head that we don’t deserve,” he said.
Ness said small cities like Alexandria, with all-volunteer firefighters, work hard to keep their budgets in line.
“To accuse us of not being accountable is the biggest insult you can make,” Ness said. “It’s just not true.”
Council members repeatedly asked Westrom and Otremba how the state expected the city to balance its books, especially since the state has already imposed levy limits.
They weren’t expecting an easy answer and they didn’t get one.
“What I’ve been hearing is that you [cities and counties] are going to have to be part of the solution,” Westrom said.
Otremba said that it’s possible the Legislature may consider a temporary moratorium on state mandates but that would mostly help counties, not cities. Westrom added that past attempts to repeal mandates have failed.
Another approach, said Westrom, is to allow cities and counties to decide to opt out of certain state mandates. But that would be strongly opposed by those supporting the higher-cost mandates involving disability and health care, he added.
Bigger mentioned another solution – imposing a local sales tax of a quarter or half a percent but the Legislature enacted a moratorium on allowing local governments to do that.
Otremba said there may be legislative talk about broadening the sales tax to include clothing or food but added it’s unlikely with another sales tax increase for the environment and arts poised to take place next July.
So in the end, the decision on how to handle the cuts rests with the city.
“You are the experts at city hall,” Otremba said. “We want to hear what you will do, tell us what you can cut.”
City Administrator Jim Taddei said the city will likely have to hold off on hiring two additional police officers – an expense it had budgeted for in 2009 to give the police department more manpower to cover areas that are being annexed.
Mayor Ness said that the city may also have to postpone capital expenditures, such as a new squad car and street department equipment. It may also have to hold off on hiring new employees and surfacing roads, he said.
“But that is a Band-Aid approach – sooner or later, it catches up with you,” the mayor said.
The possibility of a wage freeze also surfaced at Monday’s meeting but Ness explained there is a practical problem with it. Some of the employees the city negotiates with belong to unions and their wages have already been set years in advance. Ness said the city could try to settle union contracts every year but that would also add to the expense.
Bigger asked the representatives if there were any sacred cows the Legislature won’t consider cutting next session.
Westrom said it’s unlikely that education and nursing home reimbursements would be cut but that virtually everything is on the table.
One of the council’s top concerns about the upcoming budget decisions was the timing. Bigger said that if the Legislature waits until May before making deeper cuts to LGA, the city only has seven months to make up for the loss. “I wish you could give us earlier notice,” she said.
City council members expressed frustration over levy limits.
“Let us run our city,” Bigger said.
Westrom said that levy limits are not completely restrictive. Cities can ask for more money by calling for a referendum. “It doesn’t get more local than that,” he said.